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27th November 2011
Wander Woman Marie Javins discovers you can't escape the reach of Nigeria's infamous scammers
As we approached Akure, Nigeria, the minibus I'd blithely boarded in Oshogbo pulled over. The driver motioned me out. No one else disembarked. Eh?
He walked to the back of the minibus and opened the hatch, handing me my bag.
"Taxi," he said, pointing to the patch of dirt across the road where a gaggle of sedan taxis sat.
"Abuja?" I asked, wondering if these taxis were bound for Abuja.
He shook his head, said something I didn't understand, and motioned wide with his arm, then stopped, and made an arc. Ah. This taxi would take me to the bus for Abuja. I think. Maybe. Perhaps?
Nigerians speak English. I speak English. But we were having a heck of a time understanding each other's accents. The taxi did take me to the Abuja bus. I was leaving one main public transport route and crossing town to the bus park for a different route. Like coming into Victoria Station and needing to get to Paddington.
I had to fill out a form before the bus left, just as I'd had to in Oshogbo and would later do in Abuja. This included my name, contact details and next-of-kin. Given the terrifyingly fast driving I'd seen over the last 24 hours, this struck me as a good policy. The bus started and drove towards Abuja, passing though green countryside, small towns, and the occasional house with the words "NOT FOR SALE, BEWARE OF 419" painted on the side.
Nigeria is (in)famously the home of the 419 confidence-baiting advance-fee scam. 419 refers to the number of the article of the Nigerian criminal code that is used to prosecute these tricksters. Nigeria is hardly the only place that these email-baiters hail from, but certainly, it is the most well-known. The "not for sale" signs are on properties that were probably used in local confidence scams, the equivalent of putting a "not for sale" sign on a bridge that a trickster has tried to sell at a cut price, in spite of not owning the bridge.
When I'd read online hotel reviews about places to stay in Abuja and Calabar, I'd realised that these 419 con artists had turned their attention to slightly less illegal activities during their down time. The reviews – supposedly written by reviewers based in Ohio and Maryland who'd written only a single review before disappearing – made me laugh.
"Excellent hotel beyond compare with a touch that is unarguably comfortable at all times. Wow!"
"Waaoh!!! Unbelievably classical and affordable hotel."
I was aiming to stay in one of these classic and affordable – Waaoh! – hotels tonight. I barely had any money left after doling out my cash in dribs and drabs to soldiers, police, and taxi drivers en route from the border, and my ATM card was firmly sewn into the inside of my trousers, so no more cash would be forthcoming until I could, 1) remove my clothing and 2) get to an ATM. Nigerian hotels are expensive, costing far more than what I had left behind in West Africa. I'd have to slum it for the moment.
We pulled into Abuja a few hours after I'd changed buses – to the entirely wrong end of Abuja from where I wanted to be, which was near the long-distance buses and embassy district.
"You'll take a taxi to the buses here," explained the minibus driver. I switched again, trying hard to negotiate the drivers down from a pretty high starting point of about $20 for a taxi ride.
"It's a long way," explained one driver, who agreed to take me to the bus terminal for 1200 naira, or $8.
He was right. And he complained about drivers in Abuja. But to me, they drove wonderfully, much better than what I'd seen near Lagos.
The driver dropped me at the ABC Transport bus, where I bought a "sprinter" ticket to head to Calabar in the morning, before getting another taxi to the Waaoh! hotel I'd chosen based on price.
"I need a room," I explained to the young woman at the front desk. "But I am out of money and so I need your cheapest room. And I need an ATM if I want to eat anything. You have wi-fi right?"
"Yes, but it is broken."
This happened a lot. The digital world had come so far in the past ten years since I'd done the first MariesWorldTour.com, but frequently, I ended up frustrated by the connection speeds or state of disrepair. Sometimes I wondered if we'd really come all that far from when I'd watched a Zimbabwean read the entire newspaper while waiting for his Hotmail to load up in 2001 in Victoria Falls.
I took the cheapest room, counting out my coins and just making it to the 6500 naira ($41) I needed. I went into my dirty, dark, tiny room in the back corner of the hotel. No toilet seat, ants everywhere, stains on the bedspread – but it was in my price range.
I dug out my folding scissors and meticulously unstitched the Zip-Loc bag of money and cards from the inside of my black trousers. I was after my ATM card.
One of the hotel security guards walked me to the nearest ATM.
Which was out of service.
"There is another," he promised. And this helpful, gentle security guard walked me through the hilly, pleasant backstreets of the Abuja embassy neighborhood to another ATM.
That worked. It spat out loads of money. The guard escorted me back to the hotel, and I happily tipped him, before dining on Hobnobs I had in my bag, and crawling in under the stained bedspread. Something nibbled on my calf all night as I slept, and in the morning, I fled to the bus early.
I had a ticket on the "sprinter" service to Calabar, the last town in Nigeria before Cameroon. From there, I'd get the Friday ferry to Limbe, celebrating my birthday by crossing the border.
But first, I had to sit on this sprinter – which is a nice van or maybe you'd call it a jitney – until dusk.
The van wasn't sold out and still left on time. We had air conditioning and curtains to pull shut when the sun got to be too much. There were only six passengers – a businessman, a younger man, two adult women, a nun, and me.
We spread out, each taking a single seat or row. The bus driver gave us each an orange juice and a packet of Hobnobs. Which was great, even though I was overdosing on Hobnobs. We finished filling out the next-of-kin form so that we could leave – I'd caught on now to put down the US Embassy as a contact person. Hobnobs and paperwork complete, we headed out of Abuja.
"I have a question for the Sister in the back," announced the driver. He'd begun to drive and was looking back through the rear view mirror.
"Might I ask our Sister to lead us in prayer and bless our journey?"
The nun sighed and looked exaggeratedly put-upon, then smiled and said, "Oh, all right."
She read a verse from her Bible, the gist of which was to deliver us safely, and then sang a Nigerian hymn. Everyone else in the sprinter knew the song. They all joined in.
I felt like a loser now... not only did I not know the group song, but also, I can't sing anything like this nun or these other passengers. They all sang beautifully.
Travelling in comfort makes a huge difference, I thought, as we pulled away from the four-lane highways of Abuja and headed out into the countryside. Even after three more hours, I was still delighted with this style of travel. Leg room! Knees not in total agony! And best, regular toilet stops that included time to graze.
OK, the toilet stops weren't perfect. They featured three-sided concrete blocks without roofs, and you peed downhill into a trough. One of the women from our van went first. She eyeballed the situation, laughed and went ahead. Still, this was adequate compared to the no-toilet-stops I'd been living with for a while.
After a lunch stop for mango, avocado, and sliced white bread (French-speaking Africa has much better bread than English-speaking Africa), we headed out again, on in the direction of Calabar. The driver's rap CD gave way to a country-style cover of Lay Down Sally. I studied my Coke can, and learned that what I'd long suspected was true – African Coca-Cola still has sugar in it, not high-fructose corn syrup. No wonder I craved it.
The men chattered away up front, while the women kept to themselves. In late afternoon, the road turned horrible, potholed and broken. Our driver steered slowly around and through the gaps.
The businessman's mobile phone rang and he picked it up.
"Hello? … Yes, are you all right? … How were the elections in Jos? … Hmm. … Yes, I see. … They did what? Burned what? … Threw rocks at you at the polls? … Is everyone okay? … Okay, best wishes to you and your family. Stay safe."
There had been a great deal of election-related violence in Jos. He fell silent when he hung up the phone, and then started reading the newspaper.
"Hey, listen to this." He read out loud an article he'd come cross. "President Obama has advised against all non-essential travel to Nigeria. Americans should avoid going to Nigeria at this time."
Five pairs of eyes turned to look at me.
"Uh… waaoh?" I grinned. Not much I could do about it now.
And five Nigerians laughed along with me.
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